Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye

I first became interested in this book when I learned that it was what inspired Tom Clancy to become a writer.[1] But even with that, I was a little concerned about the title. It sounds like a sacrilegious allusion to two passages in the Bible.[2] However, the title had very little to do with Christianity.[3] The title refers to a nebula, called the Coal Sack, which has the appearance of a human head. However, the inhabitants of the closest planet think of it as the face of God. In that nebula is a red giant star which looks like an eye in that face. And nearby is a yellow dwarf, much like our sun, which they call the Mote. The book concerns the discovery that a sentient race other than humankind exists in the Mote planetary system and the subsequent first contact with that alien species.

My verdict: This is one of the best science fiction novels I've read. Every time it answered a question it raised one or two more. It was always hard to stop reading because I wanted to know what they were going to figure out next. Several plot points hinge around fictional technologies that exist in the book (making this "hard sci-fi"), but always in logical ways, which was satisfying.[4] The aliens depicted are believable and yet still alien. And the moral quandary faced at the end of the book was very adequately handled. The book wasn't perfect, however. Even though the authors cut a 60,000-word space battle from the beginning of the book [5], it still took too long to get to the meat of the story. They also have entire planets settled by a single race (e.g. an Irish planet, a Scottish planet [6], an Arabic planet, etc.[7]). And the existence of a hereditary aristocracy thousands of years in the future was a little hard to swallow.


[1] This is, perhaps, anecdotal since I can find no source to corroborate this claim. However, Robert A. Heinlein was quoted on the cover of the book as saying that it was "possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read."

[2] Matt. 7:3–5 and Luke 6:41–42.

[3] In fact, religious belief is generally treated with respect. And I understand that Jerry Pournelle has written other books in this universe and that he makes mention of two different planets that were settled by Mormons (though I don't know how accurate or respectful he is in his treatment of our faith).

[4] I don't know how much Jerry Pournelle contributed to this, since I haven't read anything else of his. But Larry Niven pulls off the same technique in Ringworld.

[5] See http://www.webscription.net/chapters/0671741926/0671741926.htm. Apparently this was at the suggestion of Robert A. Heinlein. See http://www99.epinions.com/review/The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven/content 33287736964.

[6] I rolled my eyes when the chief engineer turned out to be from the Scots-inhabited planet. They might as well have saved themselves the trouble of pretending that this was an original character and named him Scotty.

[7] This is also a fundamental failing of Orson Scott Card's Ender Universe. Perhaps it would happen to some degree, but certainly not as rigidly as these authors depict it. If we ever achieve interstellar colonization, I'm sure the racial and cultural diversity will be much more cosmopolitan.

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